The movement to improve the school readiness of Escambia County’s children will get a big boost this school year.
The state of Florida approved the use of a new kindergarten readiness screener, one that launches this coming school year.
“I’ve said for the last nine years, the single biggest problem we have is having students ready to begin when they enter kindergarten,” says Escambia Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “‘Ready’ doesn’t mean they are reading already. It means they know they know the letters of the alphabet, the sounds they make, they can count to 10 or 20. Not having the basic literacy skills are really the ones that cause these students not to do well in school.
“When you lose those formative years, we’ll spend a lot of money in the public school system trying to make up that time and some of that time isn’t going to be made up,” Thomas says. “Building those early concepts, it’s critical.”
The Florida Department of Education will begin using Star Early Literacy assessment, created by Renaissance Learning, at the beginning of the 2017–2018 school year.
Tracking and publicly reporting the school readiness of a district’s students has been an uneven process. The most recently available rates were from 2014. They showed that in Escambia County, 66 percent of children were ready for school based on two evaluations — Florida Assessment for Instruction in Reading (FAIR-K) and Work Sampling Survey (WSS), which leans toward gauging social, emotional and physical development.
In 2014-2015 school year, FAIR went from two parts to six parts: alphabetics, (phonological awareness, letter sounds); oral language (vocabulary pairs and following directions); comprehension (listening comprehension and sentence comprehension).
The test became an all-electronic format, but technical glitches, the need for classroom substitutes to cover while the teachers did the evaluation and other issues with the system led the state to discontinue FAIR.
That left only the Work Sampling Survey piece in wide use. Florida lawmakers instructed the Office of Early Learning not to issue readiness rates for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years. Questions arose about the validity of the data given the issues with administering the FLKRS.
The students who were kindergartners in that school year were third-grader last school year. The results of their recently released Florida Standards Assessment test results show 59 percent of them were at or above proficiency at grade level in language arts and 54 percent were at or above proficiency in math.
The Florida DOE approves assessment solutions through an approval process, that includes instructional, technology, and assessment experts from multiple divisions within Florida DOE.
“We look forward to working with schools across the State of Florida to provide them with an assessment solution that clearly identifies students’ readiness for kindergarten in their early literacy skills, which is critical to educational success,” said Renaissance interim CEO Mike Evans, in a release on PR Newswire. “The Star Early Literacy assessment will immediately yield data-driven insights, reports designed to promote action, and access to open educational resources that are aligned to and curated for Florida Standards.”
When Escambia teachers return to work Aug. 2, Thomas says an introduction to Star Early Literacy will be in order for the kindergarten teachers.
“(FAIR) was just hard for teachers,” Thomas said. “Like any evaluation, you want it to blend into what they do day to day and you hope it provides information for that child that helps know where they need a little more support.”
“That’s what you want an assessment instrument to do. We just want to know what do they know and what are they missing,” Thomas said.
The assessment itself is made up of 29 questions meant to gauge a child’s early literacy and numeracy skills. The child has 90 seconds to answer each question before the system moves them onto the next question.
It also include a practice component to help children get used to the mouse or keyboard correctly.
It covers 10 domains: alphabetic principle, the concept of word, visual discrimination, phonemic awareness, phonics, structural analysis, vocabulary, sentence level comprehension, paragraph level comprehension, and early numeracy, according to ThoughtCo review of the system linked here.
The choice of a readiness screener has implications for providers of the state’s voluntary prekindergarten program as well.
Tara Huls leads VPK program and policy in the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning.
She said Star Early Literacy was a good fit for what the state wanted in a readiness assessment. It’s adaptive, she said, adjusting the difficulty of the question based on how the child answered previous questions, which helps keep down the assessment time.
Readiness rates are used as one gauge for the effectiveness of a VPK provider. Providers that don’t see at least 70 percent of their students assessed as ready face probation. These providers must make improvements in a given time frame or face losing their contract to participate in the VPK program.
“There’s some anxiety about it” among providers, Huls said. “It’s been awhile since there’s been a rate. When providers ask, ‘What do I do to prepare?’ we’ve been telling them, as long as you’ve been watching the current standards, keep doing the great things you’ve been doing with kids.”
It’s really the third iteration of how readiness rates will be used with VPK providers in the state, Huls said.
When VPK first began, the lowest scoring 15 percent of providers were on probation, Huls said, requiring them to make improvements to remain a contracted provider.
In 2010, that changed, and at least 70 percent of a provider’s students had to be kindergarten ready, or the provider would be on probation.
“That first year, we looked at something like 34 percent of providers (in the state) being on probation,” Huls said. “Then that was a learning curve, and it dropped a little bit every year.”
“It’s early to know if it will 70 percent again or something else.”
Huls estimates that sometime this winter, the administrative rule process will help determine how the readiness rates will be used for VPK providers.